Bar none: Which ditch is which?

A bar ditch, somewhat overgrown

In The Big Empty, I have several references to bar ditches — the trenches that run beside many rural Texas roads. The ditches are designed, at least in part, for flood control. They may also also help to keep livestock from wandering onto the highway. 

My editor flagged the term repeatedly, saying she’d never heard it and most readers probably hadn’t either. I attributed to this to her living in Pennsylvania and being unfamiliar with the terminology of rural Texas. After all, she hadn’t heard of a gimme cap, either. 

As the manuscript neared completion, one of the reader I enlisted had grown up in West Texas and was familiar with the term. However, she pointed out that a journalism instructor at Texas A&M once admonished her for using it. He told her not only should she avoid it, but she shouldn’t use the more complete term, “borrow ditch,” either. 

I had always heard that the term comes from the road-building technique in rural areas. Crews “borrow” dirt from the sides to crown the roadway before paving. The practice left trenches on either side of the pavement. The term was latter shortened from “borrow” to “bar.” 

Well, it turns out, “bar ditches” are the subject of much discussion and controversy, and my editor isn’t the only one who doesn’t like it. Even people who live with bar ditches everyday don’t necessary embrace the term. There’s also a lot of debate about its origins. Some apparently believe it dates to road building in England. 

I’d be curious what others have heard about the term and its history. Have you heard it before? What did you think it means? 

Regardless, for The Big Empty, I insisted that “bar ditch” was a pretty common term in Texas, and I decided to keep it in. 

And yes, in some places, the bar ditches are wide enough that you can change a tire if your truck gets knocked off the road by a rented moving van. 

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Life imitating art imitating life — or something like that

The Big Empty as seen from Van Horn, Texas

Perhaps I should have used a rocket company instead of a semiconductor manufacturing plant.

I found myself thinking that earlier this month, as all eyes were on West Texas for the launch of billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket. 

I started writing my novel, The Big Empty, almost 20 years ago, and the idea of a rocket factory in West Texas would have seemed even more over the top than a chip plant. Besides, I knew what chip factories were like. I had toured several of them, and I covered the semiconductor industry. 

While my brother is in the private space business, the idea of making the outside company moving into the tiny town of Conquistador an aerospace firm never occurred to me. 

At any rate, all this came rushing back to me with the Blue Origin launch, in part because of some excellent reporting by my old paper, the Houston Chronicle. Andrea Leinfelder has a thoroughly reported series on the impact of the private space on small-town Texas. She takes a deep look at both Boca Chica, Space X’s launch site in far south Texas, and Van Horn. The Van Horn piece, in particular, sounds eerily familiar:

This town, like a thousand other rural communities, has seen agriculture diminish and infrastructure deteriorate. Its local improvements often depend on grants. And with Blue Origin’s higher-paid workforce, the town no longer qualifies for citywide grants reserved for low- to moderate-income communities. Residents talk about about the tight housing market and problem-plagued water system.

Still, people are excited to see what comes next, with the possibility that Van Horn will become a major launch site for space travelers.

Those were many of the same ideas I tried to capture in The Big Empty. It was what I saw first-hand in the late 1990s when, as I described in my recent guest essay for the Chronicle, I found myself on a sprawling West Texas cattle ranch to cover a tech story. 

I’ve always been fascinated with how people live in different environments. When I visit a new place, I like to see what life is like for the residents. I’ve found myself driving through neighborhoods in the interior of Maui and walking through the residential streets of Riyadh (against the “advice” of my government handlers). 

Of course, the issues facing small towns in Texas —  and across the country — have been going on for decades. But with the Blue Origin launch in Van Horn, I was struck by the old idea of life imitating art (not that I’m ascribing the “art” tag to my book, but you get the point). 

In a way, it’s happening again. I’ve been working on a sequel to The Big Empty, which could be described as “a billionaire comes to town.” 

Sound familiar? 

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Brimming with gimme caps

Even though my novel, The Big Empty, has a cowboy as a main character, I am not, by any means, a cowboy. I have lived in Texas for 45 years, and in all that time, I’ve never owned a pair of cowboy boots. 

But hats are another matter. In the book, I talk about the main character, Trace Malloy, wearing a gimme cap. My editor, who lives in eastern Pennsylvania, had never heard the term. (She also struggled with the term “bar ditch,” but that will have to wait for another post.)

Gimme caps were baseball-style hats emblazoned with company logos and given away as promotions. 

So I thought it might be interesting to create a gimme cap for the book. I considered replicating the Possum Kingdom Lake hat that Malloy wears, but those do — or at least did — exist, and I didn’t want to get into a trademark dispute with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 

So my publisher’s ace designers came up with a logo for the Conquistador Ranch, the setting for The Big Empty, and I found a company in Austin to print them. 

But in the process, I made a rather uncomfortable discovery. The hat you see above is no longer called a gimme cap, I was told. Instead, they are known as “dad hats.” 

Now, I am a dad, and I wear hats, including this one. But I also spend enough time on the internet to be familiar with terms like “dad bod” and “dad jokes,” which are not flattering terms. 

(In the case of the jokes, this is totally unfair. I mean, “cow farts are in the dairy air” or “if you find yourself in bear country, try to avoid a grisly outcome” — pure gold.) 

Anyway, I now have a bunch of these “dad” hats, and I say it’s time to get our gimme back.  

While my supply lasts, anyone who goes to Stoney Creek Publishing’s website and orders a signed copy of The Big Empty will get a Conquistador Ranch gimme cap — for free, as the name implies. These hats have an all-cotton exterior, adjustable leather back strap, and “cool crown” mesh technology inside that’s designed to keep your head cool and minimize staining — truly “upscale fashion headwear” as it says on the label. 

I bet Blaine Witherspoon wishes he’d had one instead of his helmet. 

Oh, and those signed copies of the book? At the moment, they’re 25 percent off. That’s right, a discounted, autographed book and a gimme cap. 

So read the book, and wear the hat. Then, when your friends see your striking headgear and ask where the Conquistador Ranch is, you can tell them it’s in the Big Empty and you’ve been there. 

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Sneak Peek: The Big Empty — Prologue, Part II

My debut novel, The Big Empty, is at the printer and now available for pre-order. In the meantime, here’s the second except. If you missed the first one, you can find it here.

The two men walked over to the van’s front fender, the big engine rumbling impatiently on the other side of the grille as if annoyed by the inconvenience of the situation. There was a small dent and a couple of scratches, etched white with the paint from the pickup. Malloy had swerved just enough, his instincts asserting themselves over his mental distractions. The pickup, it seemed, had borne the brunt of the impact.

“Oh, man, they’re going to charge me for that,” the man moaned, looking at the fender. “I knew I shouldn’t have tried to do this myself.”

“Can’t imagine they’ll even notice that. They probably get more dents backing them into the lot. Where’d you rent it from?”

“San Jose.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, I guess we need to exchange license and insurance information.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a problem there.”

“What?” The man looked startled.       

“I don’t have mine.”

“Don’t have what?”

“My license. Don’t have it with me. Guess there’d be an insurance card in the truck.” Malloy walked back down to the ditch.

As he rooted through the glove box, the other man walked around to the front of the pickup and looked at the shattered headlight.

“Looks pretty bad. You’ve got a flat. And you’re going to need a new windshield.”

Malloy looked up from under the dash. A crack stretched across the bottom half of the windshield. He chuckled, although the other man couldn’t see his smile from under the thick mustache.

“That was there before. Get a lot of rocks thrown up out here. Can’t keep windshields. We don’t replace ’em until they can’t pass inspection anymore.”

Malloy slammed the glove box shut.

“Looks like I don’t have an insurance card in here either. Have to go back and get it, I guess.”

Malloy stepped back out of the truck and closed the driver’s side door with the blue-stylized “F” logo of Frye Agricultural Industries Inc. The other man was standing the road, hands on his hips, his posture taking on an impertinence that Malloy instantly found annoying.  

“Wait one second,” he said. “I’m not about to let you drive off. This was your fault.” The man pointed an index finger at him, his brow furrowed in anger and disbelief.

Malloy sighed, looking at the fender biting into the airless tire. Drive off? He glanced at the toes of his boots. The seam that held the uppers to the sole near the toe was fraying. He’d need another pair before midsummer. 

“I think we’d better call the police,” the man went on.

“Well,” Malloy said slowly. “that’d be fine with me but I don’t have a way to do that.”

“I’ve got a cell phone –-”

“That probably won’t work out here,” Malloy interrupted. “And there’s only one county sheriff and three part-time deputies to patrol nine hundred square miles, so we may be waiting awhile for one to pass by.”

The man pressed his lips together so that they almost disappeared from his face. He threw his head back and looked upward as if he were drinking in the vast expanse of the sky, then exhaled. The wind picked up, blowing hard from the west and working against the mousse that tried to keep the hair against his head.

“Where are you turning the truck in? In town? At Garrison’s?” Malloy asked finally.

“I, uh, yes. I’m supposed to have it at a place called —” he fumbled in his pockets until he found a wadded-up receipt in his shirt — “Terry’s Auto Repair.”

Malloy nodded. “That’s Terry Garrison. Tell you what. You tell Terry if there’s any problem with the truck, he should settle up with me.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. I don’t even know your name.”

“Trace Malloy. I’ve known Terry since we were in diapers. He won’t give you any trouble.” Malloy extended a hand, and the man stared at the outstretched palm for a few seconds before taking it limply. 

“Well, I guess the least I could do is offer you a ride,” the man said without telling Malloy his name. 

 “Appreciate it, but I don’t need it,” Malloy said. “I’ll change the flat, bend the fender out, it’ll be fine.” 

“Uh, okay, but I still don’t know that I should be leaving without exchanging information.”

Malloy had already started to walk back toward the truck. He stopped and turned, and he could feel the impatience welling up from the soles of his feet. He sucked a deep breath through the cover of his mustache and exhaled before he spoke, hoping to dispel any tone of annoyance. The wind pressed hard against his face.

“Look, I know it’s probably not how they do things in San Ho-say, but there ain’t that many of us out here. Fact is, even if I tried to hide from you, I couldn’t. If I owe anything on the truck, just ask anyone in town, and they can tell you how to find me. I work for the ranch, and they’ll back up any damages. You have my word.”

“Well,” the other man said slowly, “It just doesn’t seem proper. What ranch?”

The ranch,” Malloy said more sharply than he’d intended. “The Conquistador. You know, the one that the whole town’s named after.” He stopped short of asking if the man knew where he was. No point in getting off on the wrong foot. 

“Oh,” the man said. He hesitated. “Of course. Well, uh, I guess it’ll be okay, then. But still —-”

“I gave you my word,” Malloy said bluntly.

“Right. Okay. Well, I guess I’d better get moving.”

Malloy watched the man climb back into the big truck, his long legs fumbling to find the proper footholds. Malloy waited, and the man ground the transmission as if he were determined to remove all the teeth from the gears. The clutch finally engaged, and the van lurched forward, stopped, then shuttered down the road, slowly gaining speed as it made for town.

Malloy watched the yellow square of its back door shrink slowly, heading into the burgeoning heat of the late morning sun. He turned back toward the ditch and looked again at the crumpled mess that had been a left front fender. He’d hoped fixing the pickup would be as easy as he made it sound. The truth was, he didn’t want some stranger giving him a lift into town. It’d take months before he’d live that down. As it was, he was likely to be the butt of local jokes for weeks.

The bar ditch was flat and wide, designed to handle sudden runoff from downpours that had become disturbingly rare. It was just broad enough for him to change the tire. The ground wasn’t terribly level, but it was sufficient for him to jack the truck up and shimmy the wheel off the studs. As he dislodged the spare and rolled it around to the front of the truck, he thought about what would happen at Garrison’s as the man rattled through his explanation. He could see Terry standing there, listening to the story like an old sheep dog, handing the man a receipt without saying a word. Then, Terry would calmly walk down to Sam’s barber shop. The ranch office would know the whole painful, embarrassing saga by noon and Darla would be waiting for him at their front door by suppertime.

Whoever the man was, he’d be getting a full dose of Conquistador. At the same time, Malloy knew, Conquistador was going to be getting more than its share of soft-handed men in black-and-yellow rental trucks.

To preorder The Big Empty or check out my other books, go to

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Where in the World is the Big Empty?

One of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the printing business has been disrupted significantly. As a result, the release of my novel, The Big Empty, keeps getting delayed. The latest setback was because the printer wasn’t able to get either of the two colors of cloth I’d selected for the binding. So it goes. The good news is that The Big Empty is being printed, it is available for pre-order, and for those who do decide to order it, we will get it in your hands as quickly as possible. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt.

The Big Empty — Prologue (Part I)

A frozen wall of fear hit Trace Malloy seconds before the oncoming truck. The grille covering the big diesel engine filled his windshield. The horn blew a pneumatic wail that plied his thoughts reluctantly, coaxing him out of his reverie too late to turn away. His right hand shot out instinctively to steady his coffee in the cup holder as he pulled hard with his left on the wheel. Both were futile gestures. 

The impact snapped him forward, then back again, as his pickup seemed to hop off the ground and bounce into the bar ditch beside the road. The seat belt snapped hard against his sternum. He heard the big truck’s tires lock up behind him as it skidded to a stop. The sound of rubber grinding on asphalt lingered for a moment. Malloy felt his one hundred-sixty-five-pound frame compress into the unforgiving seat, forcing the last bit of air from his lungs. The pickup was suddenly still.

Coffee burned through the leg of his jeans, and his chest felt as if he’d been hit with a two-by-four. He moved hesitantly and was relieved when his body responded with only dull aches. No shooting pains probably meant nothing was broken. He’d likely saved himself the humiliation of explaining what had just happened to Doc Lambeau.

He cursed himself for not paying attention. Looking through the windshield, already cracked before the collision, he tried to orient himself. He felt like a child caught daydreaming in school, his mind racing to catch up with what he’d missed. The bar ditch rolled out in front of him, a partner to the long black line of asphalt on the left, both pulled taut toward the horizon.

He found himself hoping the pickup would still be drivable. He’d managed to swerve enough that the impact must have been a glancing blow. The fact that he was still conscious, still in one piece, seemed to prove that. He’d have to explain how he’d busted up a truck on the open road. The embarrassing truth was he’d just been thinking. Not about anything in particular, he was just letting his mind wander. He’d rolled through his days in Kansas — why they were suddenly in his mind so much he didn’t know — and about Colt’s accident last summer. By the time the truck hit him, his mind had meandered back to its favorite worry — would he and Darla be better off selling out and moving to town or trying to make it through one more year. And if they made it through that one, what about the next one?

His brain had a way of sidestepping when something was bothering him. Instead of obsessing over a problem as some people’s do, his mind tried to distract him by conjuring images from the past. Still, as always, there was a common thread to these random thoughts — Colt’s injury, the family farm, his days in Kansas, Luke’s death. They all led back to the same problem, one that he couldn’t solve. That didn’t stop his mind from revisiting it, even if he was driving down the road and should have been thinking about work. His mother, who never believed in stewing over intractable concerns, would have scolded him if she’d seen how distracted he’d been. “Make your peace with the Lord, and you don’t have to worry,” she’d say. He never found it that easy, peace or no peace. Besides, his mother was usually referring to death. These days she didn’t speak of it anymore, of course. Not now that it was almost upon her, now that it had, for all practical purposes, already claimed her. For that matter, she didn’t speak of much of anything. And if she did, Malloy wasn’t around to hear it.

He tugged on the door handle of the pickup and it opened with its usual hesitation. As he stepped out, he could see the crumpled fender. The headlight was gone, and part of the wheel cover had been pressed down into the tire, puncturing it. He cursed again. Changing it wasn’t going to be easy in the ditch.  

“Are you okay?” The question came from over his shoulder. He turned around and looked up from under the red brim of his cap. Years of grime and dirt had obscured the hat’s patch that said “Possum Kingdom Lake.” More than a decade of use had bent the brim of the fishing-trip souvenir into a gentle crescent that cupped his sunglasses. The trip now seemed a lifetime ago, one of the last times he and his brother, Matt, had enjoyed each other’s company, pulling up 30-pound catfish from the depths of the lake itself and later plucking small-mouthed bass from the river below the dam.

“I’m fine,” Malloy said.

The other man stood on the roadside, hands at his waist with the palms turned upward, as if he couldn’t decide whether to shrug or fight. Either way, Malloy wasn’t worried. The man wore jeans and a green shirt with a pale plaid pattern and buttons through the collar points. Underneath, a t-shirt was plainly visible. Both shirts — faded cotton — were tucked neatly into the jeans and secured with a webbed belt. He had on wire-rimmed glasses and his swept-back hair made it look as if he had something stored in his cheeks.

“You swerved right into me,” the man said, his voice rising sharply in the middle of the sentence and falling at the end. “I couldn’t stop. I’m driving that big truck; I couldn’t turn fast enough. I was afraid it’d flip over.”

“My fault. Sorry,” Malloy said, walking up out of the ditch.

He knew he wasn’t supposed to say that. Insurance companies said to never admit wrongdoing. More importantly, he knew company policy forbade it. He glanced back at the damaged fender. If he could pull the metal free of the airless tire, he could probably change the flat and get the truck down to Terry Garrison without having to involve the adjuster that the company inevitably would send out. It seemed pointless to argue over something he knew was his fault. “You mess up, you fess up,” his mother used to say.

The man stared at him for a moment then went on talking as if he didn’t believe Malloy had said anything.

“You were just driving in the middle of the road. I thought you were turning, and as I got closer, you just kept drifting over into my lane. There was nothing I could do.”

“It’s okay. I was just turning into this road here,” Malloy said, pointing to the dirt stretch on the other side of the highway that led to a gate on the Main Ranch. “There’s usually not much other traffic out here.”

“Well, that’s not an excuse…”

“Said I was sorry. Is your truck okay?”

It wasn’t his own truck, of course. Malloy could tell just from looking that the man had never driven a truck before in his life. His claim that he couldn’t swerve belied his inexperience behind the wheel. The big yellow-and-black markings of the Ryder label clinched the theory.

The truck was idling on the east-bound lane, a few feet from the point of impact. Malloy was no traffic inspector, but he could decipher the tell-tale black skid markings that shot out from the back wheels of the vehicle straight as exclamation marks. The truck hadn’t veered from its lane.

For more information on this and my other books, check out

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Announcing My Debut Novel: The Big Empty

What did you do during the pandemic? I decided to use the extra time and isolation to plunge into fiction writing. The result is my debut novel, The Big Empty, which will be released by Stoney Creek Publishing next month.

It’s the story of a dying West Texas town on the cusp of the new millennium, struggling to preserve its culture and way of life as it desperately fights for its future. Like many rural communities, its residents worry about how much of their sense of place they must sacrifice to ensure the place will endure.

It’s got a touch of the Old West and a smattering of high tech, and it spans the state’s history from the grand cattle ranches of old to the modern world of semiconductors and wafer fabs.

Here’s a synopsis:

When Trace Malloy and Blaine Witherspoon collide on a desolate West Texas highway, their fender bender sets the tone for escalating clashes that will determine the future of the town of Conquistador. 

Malloy, a ranch manager and lifelong cowboy, knows that his occupation—and his community—are dying. He wants new-millennium opportunities for his son, even though he himself failed to summon the courage to leave familiar touchstones behind.

Witherspoon, an ambitious, Lexus-driving techie, offers a solution. He moves to Conquistador to build and run a state-of-the-art semiconductor plant that will bring prestige and high-paying technology jobs to revive the town—and advance his own career.

What neither man anticipates is the power the “Big Empty” will wield over their plans. The flat, endless expanse of dusty plain is as much a character in the conflict as are the locals struggling to subsist in this timeworn backwater and the high-tech transplants hell-bent on conquering it.

While Malloy grapples with the flaws of his ancestors and his growing ambivalence toward the chip plant, Witherspoon falls prey to construction snafus, corporate backstabbing, and financial fraud. As they each confront personal fears, they find themselves united in the search for their own version of purpose in a uniquely untamable Texas landscape.

The Big Empty is available for pre-order on Amazon, and other online retailers or directly from our distributor, Texas A&M University Press.

For this and other books of mine, check out Stoney Creek Publishing.

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Exploring `Deconstructed’ and Our Broken Immigration System

A few weeks ago, before the release of my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, got delayed at the printer because of COVID-19, I did a podcast interview with Rational Middle producer Chris Lyon.

The book uses the family history of construction industry leader Stan Marek to take the reader through changes in U.S. immigration laws during the past century. It shows how our laws have changed, how they’ve failed to keep up with the changing economic realities of the work place, and what Stan is doing to change that.

The book is now (finally) on sale, so I thought it would be a good time to bring out the podcast episode again and give it listen. Let me know what you think!

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“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing”

excerpt 4The following is the last  in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.

©2020 Loren C. Steffy

As the COVID-19 outbreak spread across the United States in the first half of 2020, healthcare workers found themselves on the front lines of efforts to stop the pandemic’s advance. One in six of those workers was an immigrant, including almost 29 percent of physicians, a study by the New American Economy found.


Immigrants work in even higher concentrations in other segments of medicine—comprising almost 37 percent of home healthcare workers, for example. “In the areas where it is most critical, immigrants are playing even greater roles—serving as the first person you might see at the hospital intake, to nurses, to the doctors themselves,” said Andrew Lim, NAE’s director of quantitative research.


NAE estimates that some forty-five thousand healthcare workers in the United States are undocumented, most of them serving in supporting roles such as aides, laundry personnel, and food preparers. Another sixty-two thousand are DACA recipients. As virus infections surged across the country, many of those DACA workers were waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the Trump administration’s executive order to eliminate their protections, leaving them vulnerable to deportation.


“To remove healthcare workers at this critical moment in time, as healthcare needs are Deconstructed cover_Revised1immense, seems to not make sense,” Lim said. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although Trump’s promise to rescind DACA anew still casts doubt over the workers’ future.


For the undocumented, working in healthcare poses a dual risk: daily potential exposure to deadly viruses and other diseases and a lack of access to medical treatment if they get sick. The workers themselves are in danger, of course, but their situation also creates a broader peril in public health. Workers who may be infected and show up for work anyway, out of fear of losing pay or jobs, could spread the virus to others.


The pandemic brought to light the critical roles that immigrants play in the U.S. economy. They’re active in services from cleaning, to deliveries, to food preparation and supply. In the orchards of California and the fields of South Texas, agricultural workers found themselves carrying letters from their employers declaring them “essential” after the Department of Homeland Security deemed that field workers were “critical to the food supply chain.”


“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” forty-three-year-old Nancy Silva, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, told the New York Times. Silva, who was working in the clementine groves south of Bakersfield, California, lives with the constant threat of deportation. The letter eased her fears, but it didn’t eliminate them.


Like thousands of other migrant agriculture workers, she is caught between the reality of America’s economic needs and the irrational vitriol of its politics. She is both essential and unwanted at the same time.


Meat packers rely on immigrant labor. As much as 50 percent of the industry’s workforce is made up of undocumented workers from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and East African nations.


As the pandemic spread across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 3 percent of workers in more than a hundred processing plants tested positive for COVID-19 in April 2020. That number may be low because of limited testing, CDC researchers said. Because workers in meat plants must do their jobs in close conditions and can’t distance themselves from each other, the virus has advanced more rapidly through their ranks. 


As workers got sick—and at least twenty died—meatpackers faced shutdowns that threatened to create shortages in supermarkets nationwide. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat producers as critical infrastructure to keep the processing plants running.


The industry, which like construction faced a shortage of workers before the pandemic, has raised pay and offered bonuses to healthy workers. But as more in their ranks showed symptoms of the virus, requiring a fourteen-day self-quarantine, labor shortages loomed, and the meat supply chain remained under pressure.


Further up that chain, farmers, ranchers. and other food suppliers that rely on immigrants to stay afloat have struggled as well. With restaurants and schools closed, many farmers couldn’t find markets for their goods. Some had to destroy crops. In Washington state, farmers amassed a one-billion-pound surplus of potatoes.


Dairy farmers, already facing lower prices before the pandemic, were hit hard by declining demand, dumping as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk a day, according to the Dairy Farmers of America.


Chicken processors, meanwhile, had to euthanize tens of thousands of birds because of reduced capacity at processing plants.


By early April 2020, Dallas restaurateur Jim Baron had closed his four Tex-Mex locations and laid off most of his workforce. He still kept a little money coming in with take-out service, but in the first week of the month, his revenue was just twenty-five thousand dollars, a plunge from two hundred seventy-five thousand dollars for the same week in 2019. Restaurants use current revenue to pay past obligations, so when the revenue nosedived, Baron struggled to pay vendors for deliveries they’d already made and employees for work they’d already done.


“It’s a very difficult time,” he said. “And it’s the reality facing every restaurant in the United States.”


Like the struggling meatpackers, farmers, and ranchers, Baron had many employees who were immigrants living paycheck to paycheck. Forced to lay them off, he worried that many wouldn’t return to the restaurant business when the economy recovers because they would find work elsewhere. Multiplied across other industries, the loss of jobs and businesses is likely to be devastating to America’s attempt to rebuild its economy.


“They’re really a huge contributing member of the system, and we’re going to lose that economic value,” Baron said of immigrant workers. “Once the smoke clears on this crisis, we’re going to have to rebuild, and we’re going to need [immigrants] and their work is going to be appreciated. I think they have a chance, you know, of being seen differently by the average American.”


The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic threw economic assumptions into chaos. Pessimists wonder how the United States will deal with unemployment levels that by late May approached 15 percent—the highest since the Great Depression. Will more than twenty million desperate out-of-work Americans finally accept the menial jobs they just months earlier renounced? Will those jobs even exist as businesses fail?


President Trump has already barred both legal and illegal immigrants from entering the country during the pandemic. Will he extend those restrictions and for how long? With the U.S. suffering the most cases and deaths in the global health crisis, will anyone want to come here to work if they could? Will there be better opportunities elsewhere?


“The pandemic has definitely created uncertainty,” Stan said. “But I feel like construction will rebound quickly. There is just so much demand for roads, buildings, houses, and so forth. I do think that immigration will be restricted, and we must find a way to encourage young men and women in our high schools to enter the trades. I doubt many will want to work in a job that offers no training, no benefits, no career. And I think they want to be tax-paying citizens and contribute to a better society. Fixing this broken immigration system, especially dealing in a humane way with the eleven million already here, would be a great start.”


In early 2020, construction workers were designated as essential workers. Stan Marek sees a correlation between the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the rebuilding effort to recover from COVID-19. Like Baron, he believes immigrants will be vital.


“Those of us who lived through Hurricane Harvey should remember who participated in the cleanup and rebuild of our city—mucking out houses, tearing out wet sheetrock, hauling off trash, and other ‘dirty jobs’ that no one else wanted to do,” he said. “Where would we have been without these essential workers? Now more than ever we must get serious about building a resilient workforce for the next disaster. Ignoring the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of workers in the shadows that we are relying on in time of crisis makes no sense.”


To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.

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“This is what happens when you have real employees”

excerpt 3

The following is the third in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.

©2020 Loren C. Steffy

Cars and trucks—mostly pickups—flow into the field behind the Knights of Columbus Hall in north Houston. The hall is old, but the event is older. For more than eighty years, the Marek Family of Companies—which started business in 1938 as Marek Brothers

Sheetrock—has hosted a Christmas party for employees. Started by the grandsons of Czech immigrants, the company today is the largest specialty drywall and interiors installer in the southwestern U.S.

In the final weeks of 2019, more than a thousand current and former employees lined up for a barbecue lunch followed by an awards ceremony that recognized long-time workers. More than three hundred of them have worked there for at least twenty years, and some for more than fifty.

As we walk across the field toward the hall, Stan Marek, the company’s chief executive Deconstructed cover_Revised1and the son of one of its founders, sweeps his hand across the sea of vehicles. “Look at how many of these trucks are new,” he says. “This is what happens when you have real employees. They can afford to buy things like trucks and houses.”

By “real” employees he means full-time hires on his payroll, not workers who are mischaracterized as independent contractors and doing piecework for anyone who needs them that day. The distinction is significant in the construction business. In the past twenty years, the industry has emerged as a flashpoint in the debate over immigration. These misclassified workers and the companies that hire them have upended decades of economic convention. Unlike Marek, many employers rely on undocumented immigrants because they are so easy to misclassify—and thus to marginalize. Their bosses see them as largely disposable, or at least interchangeable, paying them in cash, and providing no safety training, health benefits, or additional money for overtime.

This keeps costs down but does little to build a skilled and reliable workforce, encourage loyalty, or provide financial security for the workers—or the companies themselves.

Stan has long believed construction companies’ reliance on this system hurts workers and the industry. He suggested that I write this book to show how the impact of illegal immigration has eroded wages and degraded working conditions and quality in the industry. He also wanted a platform to illustrate his proposed “ID and Tax” solution. But it’s outside the Knights of Columbus hall on an overcast December day that the point of everything Stan has worked tirelessly for hits home in the most basic way.

Employees who get a regular paycheck can verify their employment to a bank. That means they can apply for financing to buy a new truck. “Off-the-books” contractors working for cash must settle for whatever vehicle they can afford for the money they have in their pocket. Unknowingly, they underpin and perpetuate a shadow economy from which they have little chance to escape.

Stan talks a lot about the need for workers to be brought out of the shadows. The effort would require that they pay taxes on their income and, in turn, that their employers fund payroll taxes and workers’ compensation insurance, as Marek does. The money that Stan pays employees begins a ripple that fans out across the economy. His workers have a verifiable source of regular income.

This lets them finance a truck, sign a satellite TV contract, buy a house, or put in a pool. In other words, they participate fully in the economy.

In contrast, the estimated eleven million illegal immigrants who live in the United States work for cash in the shadow economy. They may buy groceries and electronics. Some may even manage to purchase homes. But their participation in mainstream economic activities is limited. They don’t get the rewards of a steady paycheck or a retirement plan. At the same time, they extract a higher price on society in unanticipated ways. Rather than scheduling regular doctor visits, they may choose the emergency room for routine ailments—the most expensive form of medical care.

Ultimately, local taxpayers foot the bill. In this case and in myriad other instances, the economy—and thus the country—doesn’t receive the full benefit that it does from employees who work on the books, pay taxes, and contribute to the funding of their medical and other expenses. In Texas, about 24 percent of all construction workers are undocumented, the result of decades of immigration laws out of step with economic reality.

Illegal immigration stems from complex economic, legal, and political factors that many Americans don’t understand. They’ve had little reason to delve into the intricacies or the origins. Most native-born citizens know only the romantic tales of ancestors, fighting in the Revolution or coming through Ellis Island, searching for a better life, and enduring perilous journeys and hard work before achieving financial stability and the American Dream.

Immigrants have long been the source of America’s economic strength. Yet our immigration laws have always been ill-defined and arbitrary, based largely on the fears of the moment and aimed at limiting particular groups of people. These fears—and the sources of them—have ebbed and flowed over the decades.

Today anxiety over immigration is omnipresent and it means that the United States has evolved from a country open to almost anyone to a country that few can come to legally. In fact, our borders can be closed to new arrivals with the stroke of a president’s pen. As the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 engulfed the nation, President Donald Trump reacted by suspending almost all legal immigration to the United States, at least temporarily.

Stan is trying to bring a rational approach to a debate that has consistently shown little appetite for rationality.

The federal government has contributed to the confusion surrounding illegal immigration. Officials have enforced existing immigration laws poorly and inconsistently. This is partly because the government doesn’t have the money or the resources to deport all eleven million illegal immigrants, as President George W. Bush noted in 2007.

Even with more recent attempts to step up deportations—and with the feds’ growing reliance on local law enforcement to assist and help pay for the initial arrests and detentions of undocumented immigrants—the government is doing little to reduce the number of undocumented people already in the country.

Some immigration foes argue that the cost and feasibility of mass deportations don’t matter. They say that “illegal is illegal,” and every undocumented immigrant should be rounded up and sent back to his or her country of origin. They seem to think their ancestors arrived “the right way,” and today’s undocumented immigrants are coming “the wrong way.” In fact, immigrants at Ellis Island shared more in common with the Latinos showing up at the southern border than they do with those who receive visas.

No one came to Ellis Island with permission. What changed was not the attraction of America for immigrants or the circumstances of their arrival, but the policies enacted by those who were already here.

Calls for mass deportations of illegal immigrants ignore economic reality. Beyond the prohibitive costs of processing so many people, removing millions of workers from the economy could stifle productivity and trigger a recession.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the U.S. economy was shuttered, the government designated workers in agriculture, food processing, and construction as “essential,” regardless of their immigration status. Others lost their jobs and were left to fend for themselves without the social or economic safety nets provided for legal residents. Yet as the economy recovers, it may once again turn to immigrants—both legal and illegal—for some of the most vital services, just as the country has in the recovery from other disasters.

A rational approach to mending our inconsistent policies requires an economic solution to illegal immigration. Such a change would consider not just the costs of enforcement but also weigh the potential benefits of reform against the price of perpetuating a failing system and a shadow economy.

Focusing on the economics of illegal immigration makes sense because most immigrants who arrive illegally come in pursuit of an economic benefit: a job. Yet our immigration laws have never been based on economics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Texas construction industry: Here a shortage of labor—legal or undocumented—has left the industry struggling to meet demand.

Native-born applicants are not flooding job sites looking for construction work. Since the late 1990s, Stan and his company have actively recruited from high schools, community colleges, and even prisons, yet their efforts haven’t attracted enough workers. Even today, despite Stan’s efforts, most young Americans prefer jobs less strenuous than construction.

The construction industry in America stands out for its inextricable link to the immigration story. Many companies like Marek were founded by the descendants of immigrants and, from their earliest days, provided jobs for other immigrants. The work was hard, but the pay was good enough for those workers to earn a middle-class living and carve out their piece of the American Dream.

As Stan’s workers ate barbecue at the Christmas lunch, he outlined his latest efforts in fighting for rational immigration reform. Most of those in the hall already knew that Stan met regularly with U.S. congressmen and state lawmakers, that he had funded organizations to change immigration policy, and that he frequently wrote guest newspaper columns advocating reform.

He told them about this book and a companion video series, “The RationalMiddle of Immigration.” He and other local business leaders are supporting the initiative to broaden public understanding of immigration. He said he hopes new knowledge will usher in political and social change.

After the lunch, a longtime Latino employee approached Stan. “Thank you,” he said, “for all you’re doing for us.” I didn’t know if he meant immigrants, Latinos, construction workers, or Marek employees. He could have meant all four.

To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.



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‘We need to bring people out of the shadows’


The following is the second in a series of excerpts from my latest book, Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, which will be published in September 2020.

©2020 Loren C. Steffy

The rains began falling on Houston on August 25, 2017. Further down the coast, near Corpus Christi, a major hurricane with sustained winds of one hundred twenty miles an hour slammed ashore. Houston had endured its share of hurricanes and tropi­cal storms, but Hurricane Harvey was different. The storm didn’t leave. For five days, Harvey wobbled around central Texas, and its outer rain bands never departed from Houston’s skies. The killer storm unleashed thirty-four trillion gallons of rainfall, more than any storm in U.S. history. One part of the city got almost fifty-two inches, and the average for the area—roughly the size of New Jer­sey—was more than forty inches.


Houston was built on a flat, coastal plain intercut with bay­ous. As the deluge persisted, Deconstructed cover_Revised1those bayous began to rise. Streets flooded, then yards flooded, and eventually, tens of thousands of homes flooded. When the waters finally receded, Houston faced an unprecedented crisis.


Within days, damage estimates exceeded one hundred ninety billion dollars, making Harvey by far the costliest storm ever—more than the expense of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. AccuWeather estimated the destruction would shave 1 percent from the country’s gross domestic product.


Parts of Houston remained uninhabitable for months. Tens of thousands of homes across the state were destroyed and hun­dreds of thousands sustained some sort of damage. Even before the skies cleared, Houston, a city known for its resilience, began talking about how it would rebuild.


 “Harvey can be characterized as the largest housing disaster in the U.S.,” said Marvin Odum, the former Shell Oil president who served as Houston’s chief recovery officer. In all, an estimat­ed three hundred thousand homes were damaged or destroyed, creating a need for labor to rebuild on a massive scale.


For Stan Marek, the question wasn’t how, but who. With the construction industry already struggling under a labor shortage, who would do the work of rebuilding Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast? With the passage of the state law banning sanctuary cit­ies just months before the storm hit, the construction industry in Houston already was seeing its workforce decline. Many Latinos, both documented and undocumented, fled Texas amid growing concern that local police would start rounding up immigrants.


The state was scaring away the very workers Houston and other coastal cities battered by Harvey required to rebuild. Restoration of the Gulf Coast, Stan knew, would depend on an alternative to deportations, walls, and hateful rhetoric. It would need to draw on the large number of undocumented workers already in the city and the state.


“We need to find a way to bring those people out of the shad­ows, to allow them to work and to pay taxes, while they work on coming to some position of legal status,” Odum said. “When you try to recover from something like Harvey, over a period of the next several years, that’s an enormous surge of activity. As far as I’m concerned, we need all hands on deck.”


Stan recalled the response to Tropical Storm Allison, the clos­est thing in modern history to Harvey that Houston had seen. That storm had dumped twenty-seven inches of rain on Hous­ton in twenty-four hours in 2001, causing nine billion dollars in damage. Thousands of workers, many undocumented, flocked to the city to help with the rebuilding. Their efforts were welcomed, with few questions asked about their immigration status.


Sixteen years later, however, Texas was far less accommodating to the undocumented, even in the state’s time of need. While the sanctuary cities ban had been temporarily blocked by the courts in late summer of 2017, the sentiment was clear: undocumented workers weren’t welcome.


“I need a legal way to be able to access that workforce,” Odum said. That didn’t mean giving all workers blanket legal status, but at least giving them temporary status so they could work legally without fear of deportation.


As Texas struggled to find recruits for the rebuilding effort, con­struction demand was rising in other states. Workers in other cities had less reason to come to Houston to help with rebuilding, espe­cially since in many states, wages are higher than they are in Texas.


Stan viewed the Harvey recovery, with its need for additional construction workers, as an opportunity to change the tone of the immigration debate. In a guest column for the Houston Chron­icle in September 2017, he called for granting the six hundred thousand undocumented workers in Houston some type of legal status immediately. Other local business leaders supported his “ID and Tax” plan, calling for workers to be identified and put on company payrolls where their wages would be taxed as required of all full-time employees. Immigrants may have helped rebuild Houston after Allison, but many were taken advantage of by labor brokers. This time, Stan vowed, it would be different.


ID and Tax wouldn’t be carte-blanche amnesty. In ex­change for legal status, immigrant workers would consent to a background check and get a tamper-proof photo ID. Once the government determined they had committed no felonies, they would work for a sponsoring employer who agreed to cover their payroll taxes and provide accident insurance. The plan was simi­lar to how current work visas already are handled.


Stan remains determined to reverse the system of exploitation and abuse that holds back immigrants and hurts his industry. He seeks a rational policy that will bring the country’s more than eleven million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into the mainstream economy. Stan reiterates the logic behind his thinking every chance he gets. These immigrants cannot vote or receive welfare, yet they work as productive members of society. Many have been illegally in the U.S. for decades and are as much a part of the landscape as legal citizens. Americans have already invested billions of dollars in educating their children. By iden­tifying these illegal immigrants and taxing them for working in the United States, governments will add more money to public coffers, improve wages and working conditions, and ensure the workers have needed protections without fearing deportation.


If Stan has his way, immigration reform would involve sever­al key steps, starting with the DREAM Act. Since 2001, Congress has flirted with the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which, like DACA, would grant conditional residency for undocumented minors. If these immigrants meet additional qualifications, the act would create the opportunity for them to achieve permanent residency. The U.S. House approved a version of the bill in 2010, but the Senate came up five votes short. Af­ter the measure failed to pass, President Obama in 2012 signed the executive order creating DACA. (DACA and the DREAM Act are similar in their intent—protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation—but as an executive order, DACA could be undone as Obama’s successor tried to do. The DREAM Act would codify the protections as law.1)


Stan would take the DREAM Act one step further. He would ex­tend its provisions of conditional and eventual permanent residen­cy not just to children, but to their five million parents. Under his proposal, undocumented adults would receive legal status for three years and a work permit giving them time to begin meeting the re­quirements for permanent resident status. Essentially, employers would sponsor adult DREAMers until they achieved legal status, ensuring that most of the applicants for the program had a job.


DACA and the Temporary Protected Status program, which al­lows workers to stay in the United States on a temporary basis for employment purposes, provide similar, if temporary, protections from deportation, allowing immigrants to remain and work in the United States. ID and Tax would take a similar approach but make those protections ongoing on a renewable basis that would be re­viewed every three years.


Of course, this provision only works if the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor cooperate to ensure that employers hire workers as full-time employees and deduct taxes from their paychecks, rather than classifying them as indepen­dent contractors. Currently, the two agencies share little infor­mation. By forming a joint task force to address immigration, they could increase compliance for both taxes and working conditions, giving immigrants a process for reporting violations without fear­ing deportation. At the same time, the measure would increase federal tax revenue.


Stan’s plan requires the Department of Homeland Security to complete thorough background checks on immigrants already in the country and develop a secure, tamper-proof form of identifi­cation rather than the easily forged Social Security card. Provid­ing an ID to every immigrant who is in the United States illegally would allow the government to know who they are and where they live. In addition, allowing them to get a driver’s license would give immigrants greater mobility, helping reduce regional labor short­ages without compromising security. Many illegal immigrants in Texas, for instance, are afraid to leave the state because they can’t get a driver’s license.


“That would be a step that brings people to conventional legal employment relationships,” said Mark Erlich, with Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program. “It’s a positive step for those workers, for the industry, and for taxpayers as a whole. It takes these workers out of the shadows, so that they have the rights that go along with being an employee, which include the right to a minimum wage, the right to overtime payments, the right to anti-discrimination laws, the right to form union organizations, all of those rights come along with being an employee. If you’re an independent contractor, you have none of those rights. You’re basically on your own.”


Stan’s plan would direct ICE to stop auditing employers. He says the current system punishes them twice—once by forcing them to fire workers and then again when disreputable competi­tors hire the workers their former employers trained. The agency should instead work with the IRS to ensure that undocumented workers are properly identified and taxed.


Once those basic objectives are in place, Stan wants Congress to develop a path to legal status for all immigrants who are al­ready in the United States. Critics call it amnesty, but deporting millions of workers who contribute to the economy would create a huge labor shortage in industries including construction. That in turn could cause escalating prices for homes, offices, and oth­er real estate, Stan contends. Multiplied across agriculture, meat packing, and other immigrant-dominated business, the economic fallout becomes profound.


Finally, the plan requires that both U.S. borders be secured by reasonable means. He suggested neither a physical wall nor a met­aphorical wall of fear and intimidation. Instead he’s proposing a systematic monitoring that takes advantage of new, more afford­able technology such as drones and motion sensors. The system would identify all workers and require entry into the E-Verify sys­tem. At the same time, employers would be required to pay all employment taxes on them.


The plan represents a feasible compromise that preserves bor­der integrity while addressing the economic realities of immigra­tion and providing the millions of undocumented workers a way out of the shadows, Stan said.


With Trump’s election, Stan realized he’d have to scale back be­fore he’d even had a chance to widely promote the plan he still be­lieves in. The president had been in office only seven months when Harvey struck and Houston clamored to rebuild, but Trump’s an­ti-immigrant rhetoric had poisoned the chance for rational debate, let alone adoption of Stan’s sweeping immigration proposals. By late 2017, Stan worried that any plan creating the possibility for millions of undocumented workers to become citizens would de­rail any attempts at reform. Instead, he regrouped around two cru­cial and specific tenets of his initiative: “ID and Tax.”


These provisions would identify undocumented immigrants already in the country and create a legal protection for them to work, ensuring that they pay taxes. The initiative would reduce many of the abuses endured by immigrant workers, allow them to work and remain in the country without fear of deportation. Because the government would have their personal information on file, security concerns would be reduced as well.


“If they’ve been here more than five years, they get an ID, and they get entered in the E-Verify system,” Stan said. “Then they go to work for an employer who puts them on the payroll and pays taxes. If employers don’t comply, the workers have recourse in the courts or with the government.”


Those provisions alone, Stan argues, would change the nature of the immigration debate. His program would remove employers’ excuses that paying undocumented workers overtime and bene­fits would be too expensive and cause companies to lose projects. If all employers faced the same requirements, the competitive landscape would be more level than it is now, Stan argues. He has a project in mind for testing his system: “If Trump is serious about building a wall, then let’s take the workers who are here, ID them, and let them build the wall.” He was only half joking.


Distrust would undoubtedly linger, but by providing a path to legal status, undocumented workers already in the U.S. would be able to secure a driver’s license, open a bank account, and partic­ipate openly in their communities. Law enforcement could again rely on immigrant neighborhoods to help with community polic­ing and doctors and nurses would have access to reliable medical records on the immigrant patients they were treating. Immigrant parents would no longer fear being arrested by ICE agents if they show up at their children’s schools.


“Employers like myself would find the employees we need to rebuild this city—not with the labor that will be exploited be­cause of immigration status, but with legal workers paying taxes and protected with insurance,” Stan wrote in the Chronicle in the fall of 2017.


It wasn’t the full-scale reform that Stan had long yearned for, but it would be a good first step. Without the help of illegal immi­grants, Texas’s recovery would likely be painful and protracted.


Houston is a city eager to embrace its rebirth and its long his­tory of welcoming immigrants could represent a turning point. As the 2020 hurricane season dawned, a reporter called Stan and asked him if the city had the workforce it needed to recover from another major storm. Stan’s answer was immediate: No. Not even close. The rebuilding effort from Harvey was still dragging on be­cause of labor shortages the last time. Stan, however, continues to hope that Houston’s inclusiveness and vibrant immigrant com­munity will seed a solution to America’s long-deficient immigra­tion policies. And with those advantages—bolstered by rational debate and thoughtful action—might also come hope for the fu­ture of the construction industry. It’s a goal to which Stan Marek, like his father before him, has devoted his life.


To pre-order a copy of Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades, click here.

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